Maverick Citizen


Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Social media needs Rapid Information and Communications Task Team

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Social media needs Rapid Information and Communications Task Team
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It’s easy to feel despair when we remember the violence that erupted in KZN and Gauteng just over a year ago. There was a proliferation of mis- and disinformation around the unrest, and we also saw a combination of online harms that worked together to heighten tension and anxieties. We need a social media monitoring task team to mitigate these harms in the future.

Our media have highlighted the apparent lack of action and justice by the state, and some have forecasted the for similar and possibly greater levels of violence. In addition to the President’s own Expert Panel into the July 2021 Civil Unrest, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) also held an inquiry into the violence. We hope that the findings of the SAHRC inquiry will be released soon so we can urgently engage, potentially implement its recommendations, and ensure we have effective and right-based mechanisms in place in order to be responsive to future times of crisis or unrest.

As we remember those who lost their lives it is critical that we take action to ensure we don’t see a repeat of such horrific events. It is essential that we do so, not simply because we can’t afford more destruction but because we need to ensure that we learn from these harmful events and in so doing honour the 354 people who lost their lives in that period. Without taking away from the overwhelming need for meaningful and concrete action from the state, and the security cluster in particular, we need to accept that it is in all our interests to act to prevent such violence.

Given that our work at Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) traverses on- and offline forms of media and communication, we were – and remain – acutely aware of the role of social media in some instances escalating the unrest. The role of social media in the July violence was highlighted in the Expert Panel Report and in submissions to the SAHRC inquiry. Oddly, the expert panel made no recommendation around the huge challenges relating to social media. As MMA we would like to see the creation of a Rapid Information and Communications Task Team (RICTT). The RICTT would serve multiple purposes, but key among them would be to act as an effective communication strategy and an effective crisis response mechanism.

Why do we need the RICTT?

Running the Real411 for the last three years has shown that mis- and disinformation thrive when there are insufficient details or big gaps in communication, but also when there are higher levels of anxiety and elevated tensions. It’s hardly surprising then that there was a proliferation of mis- and disinformation around the violence in July in 2021. During the unrest we also saw – as evident in other instances, like some of the pervasive Afrophobic content shared on social media – a combination of online harms that worked together to heighten tensions and anxieties. For example there were posts showing burning buildings from a few years ago and in some instances violence from different countries. This content was often accompanied by calls encouraging and inciting further violence. MMA highlighted these and other elements during our submission to the SAHRC inquiry.

To see why we need a RICTT it’s helpful to recall that the role of social media was highlighted amid the violence. Notably, during his address on 12 July 2021 President Ramaphosa, said: “We should refrain from posting and circulating inflammatory messages on social media, and from spreading rumours or false reports that may create further panic.” In addition to responding to cases reported to Real411, the media also helped their audiences with tips and guidelines on how to spot disinformation in order to help mitigate the fear and anxiety that some were provoking on social media.

Perhaps the biggest challenge relating to social media in times of crisis is finding a response that is both rights based and effective. Efforts by other states to ban disinformation have resulted in unreasonable incursions into freedom of expression. Similarly extreme measures like internet shutdowns are just about the worst possible option and tend to be exercised in more authoritarian contexts, almost always dictatorships. Not only do they shut down some of the potentially bad content, but they also completely shut down most other avenues for people to get accurate and reliable information. It is essential then in addressing mis- and disinformation that any actions fall squarely within the dictates of our Constitution and must be grounded firmly in international human rights law, including respect for freedom of expression and access to information.

A key lesson from the Covid pandemic has been the critical importance of a multi-stakeholder approach. MMA has consistently argued that combating disinformation will not be successful unless a multi stakeholder approach is adopted. States, social media platforms, civil society, credible media, academics, other experts and the general public all have a role to play in combating dissemination. None of these on their own can combat mis- and disinformation – or indeed other online harms successfully.

This is why we believe that given the positive and potentially dangerous role social media can play in a time of crisis, there needs to be a system in place ready to communicate effectively to combat disinformation. Fortunately, we already have some exciting precedent to draw on from the Covid pandemic and work around the elections. 

One of the most successful elements of South Africa’s response to the Covid pandemic was the establishment of a multistakeholder social listening group. A similar approach was adopted in the run-up to the 2019 National General Elections where the IEC, social media platforms and civil society worked together to help combat disinformation.

What is the RICTT

Times of crisis, such as unrest, require urgent and immediate responses. This has been recognised by our government who established the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (Natjoints) as the operational arm of the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster. The mandate of the Natjoints is to plan, implement, execute and monitor all interdepartmental and cross-provincial operations affecting safety, security and stability in our country. 

Natjoints is well placed to incorporate our proposed Rapid information and communications task team – RICTT – that among other things, analyses, provides up-to-date information, develops risk communication strategies and advises Natjoints and other key stakeholders, including the social media platforms, of any imminent threats or issues that need to be addressed during a crisis such as a time of unrest. It is clear that Natjoints is the appropriate structure under which the envisaged task team would fall. First, Natjoints can pull together relevant government departments, as well as other required role players in order to respond to a crisis situation. Second, Natjoints is aware of the concerns around disinformation and incitement on social media platforms and would benefit from a coordinated response.

While Natjoints is the logical home for the RICTT, given the dominance of security cluster entities in its makeup, it would be important that the RICTT operates at arm’s length, and it is equally important that the RICTT be guided by a rights-based approach. It is precisely during a crisis that respect for rights is required. When responses fail to infuse a rights-based approach crises may be deepened, with further rights violations coming to the fore. 

To enable a rights-based approach, the RICTT should be led by an independent body like the SAHRC. Members of the RICTT should include, subject to the specific nature of the unrest or crisis – SAPS, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, social media platforms, telecommunications companies, civil society organisations, journalists and media associations, independent fact-checking organisations, and other relevant private stakeholders able to provide expertise, evidence and contribute towards a multistakeholder approach to disinformation. 

The RICTT would only be called together to assist in addressing disinformation and incitement on social media platforms during times of unrest or state of disaster.

As we see it, the RICTT would have two main functions. First, to ensure accurate credible information is developed and disseminated and is available to everyone. It is important to ensure that communication during times of crisis and unrest is available on an ongoing basis and that relevant and appropriate information is easily accessible to all. Such communication efforts must be effective, open, and transparent. 

Second, to proactively identify, address and correct disinformation. MMA recommends the expansion and mainstreaming of initiatives such as the Real411 to proactively identify, address and correct disinformation. 

The Real411 played an active role during the unrest and has and continues to play an important role in combating dis- and misinformation online in the context of the pandemic. The Real411 is a reliable, accessible, and responsive platform that can assist the work of the task team. It’s important that a similar approach is adopted to ensure appropriate safeguards for freedom of expression, political organising, and robust dissent while developing the capacity to address incidents of disinformation and incitement.

MMA, supported by public interest law firm, Power Singh Inc, formally presented the concept of the RICTT to the SAHRC inquiry. Our next step will be to gauge further support and engage some of the key stakeholders including representative from Natjoints and the Presidency. In doing so we hope to make a constructive contribution to how we respond as a nation to the next crisis. It’s easy to moan and point out government’s failure. Trouble is, South Africa belongs to all within it, it’s our democracy. Collectively, as we develop safeguards and design mechanisms for times of crisis – whether a pandemic or civil unrest – we must ensure that proactive and reactive measures are infused with the dictates of our constitution, protect fundamental rights, and enable openness and accountability. DM/MC

William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA). Tina Power is Senior Associate at Power Singh Inc.

Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be disinformation, report it to Real411.


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